Out on the Deep Blue
True Stories of Daring, Persistence, and Surival from the Nation's Most Dangerous Profession
By Leslie Leyland Fields
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2001 Leslie Leyland Fields
All rights reserved.
MARIE BEAVER,a wilderness guide in the Brooks Range, takes her first commercial fishing trip with her fisherman boyfriend while in decisional angst about marrying him and becoming a full-time fisher herself.
THE THREE MEN sat at the galley table, slumped over steaming coffee mugs, unusually quiet. Their hair stuck out in wild tufts, and bed-creases were etched into their faces. Tony eventually rose, toasted some muffins, and offered them around. Dale shook his head no.
"Can't eat before an opening," Lars said as he poured himself another cup of coffee. "Too nervous."
He downed the mug, climbed the ladder to the wheelhouse, and started the engine. It gave a raspy shriek, causing my shoulders to seize, before it subsided to a bulldozer-decibel purr. Tony and Dale quickly dumped their coffee in the sink and hurried outside. I ascended to the wheelhouse to view the two men, who were already on the bow helping to draw up the anchor. The chain made a terrible clatter as it spooled, like a jackhammer striking the hull. When the anchor landed on deck, they latched it and retreated to the wheelhouse.
It was 7:00 A.M. In two hours, Kodiak's herring fishery would begin, marking the start of herring season for the Raven crew. There would be a three-hour opening this morning and probably one this afternoon, after Alaska Fish and Game officials counted the morning's catch to make sure the quota had not been exceeded. Later in the month, the Cook Inlet and Togiak fisheries, each, like Kodiak, comprising a few short openings, would take place. And that — amounting to roughly twenty-four hours of fishing — would be it until next year.
I was on the boat at the behest of Tony, my boyfriend of two years, who was trying to convince me to become a fishing team with him. I enjoyed guiding wilderness trips in Alaska's Brooks Range, my job for the past eight years, but I was growing tired of cooking for the clients, adjusting their packs, reassuring them when it rained, and the low wages. Fishing, especially with Tony, whom I someday hoped to marry, struck me as a great possibility. I envisioned a total sensory experience. I wanted to work my muscles to an ache and sweat until I stunk. I wanted to cover myself in fish slime, smell it, taste it, get close to the muck of life. I wanted to be outside all day with the wind and the rain and the snow, laughing with the elements in true King Lear fashion. I was looking for a job that went beyond economic satisfaction, that would include the things I loved to do, my interests and convictions, something that would inspire me and fill me with a sense of belonging. The difference between a purely financial pursuit and the one I sought would be the difference, I thought, between renting a house owned by someone I didn't know and living in a home that I had built with my own hands and creative impulses.
We were on the west side of Kodiak Island, deep inside Uganik Bay where it split into three long triangles. The water was choppy with whitecaps that looked like handkerchiefs strewn about. Nearby were fifty other seine boats. All had massive booms from which hung power blocks as big as car engines, smaller-scale booms, and masts that held various antennae. Piles of black web, each large enough to fill a school bus, lay on the decks. Bulky aluminum skiffs towed at the seiners' sterns.
"Let's take the west arm," Lars said as he shifted into gear. "I have a good feeling about it."
Tony and Dale stood inches from the sonar screen. At intervals, one of them pointed to the screen and exclaimed, "What's that?" Lars then swiveled in his seat to study the picture and usually pronounced, "Rock," with a trace of disappointment. Occasionally, however, he murmured an interested "hmmm," and maneuvered the boat in a circle around the object. But after an hour of this, we had found no herring.
Soon, the spotter pilot, Craig, contacted us on the radio. I was surprised since I hadn't heard his Super Cub. It took a while to locate it, extremely high, a speck lost in the blue.
"There's no fish," Lars told him.
"I see something across the bay from you," Craig said. He had a quiet voice, one you would expect to find on a meditation tape, not from someone whose job involved keeping one eye on the fish, another on the boats, and whatever was left on the forty other planes sharing the same pocket of sky. "It's off the bow of that black seiner —"
Lars increased the throttle, producing a heavy rattle, like a bulldozer straining to get unstuck from the mud. As we crashed through the choppy water, Craig directed us. "A little more to your right. Now a little more."
Twenty feet from the black boat, the Misty Morning, we stopped suddenly, sending binoculars and pens on the chart table tumbling.
"Bingo," Lars said. He glanced at the Misty Morning and lifted an eyebrow. In his early forties, Lars had fished for twenty years in Alaska in almost every fishery — crab, black cod, shrimp, pollock, herring of course, and salmon. He had a chest the size of a kiddie wading pool and veiny, swollen biceps. His straight hair cut in the shape of a bowl made him look like an overgrown Beaver Cleaver, but Lars was far from goody-goody. One night in a bar in the town of Kodiak where we had spent two weeks preparing for herring season, only casually drunk, he had approached a stranger, stuck both hands inside a hole in the thigh of the man's jeans, and ripped the entire pant leg. If I were the recipient of a lifted eyebrow from Lars, I'd be worried.
Craig flew off to help the Order of Magnitude and the Natalia, both of which were members of our combine, a quasicommunistic arrangement in which we shared trade secrets and profits. These days, with the voluminous nets and spotter planes and sonar equipment, seiners caught either hundreds of tons in one swoop or nothing. To compensate for those inevitable missed seasons, most boats belonged to combines.
Lars eased up on the throttle and we very slowly circled the herring, which were easily spooked. The Misty Morning followed close behind, once attempting to pass us, at which Lars lifted his eyebrow and sent the Raven shooting ahead. As the two boats resumed their relentless circling, I felt like we were riding a carousel of hungry piranha.
At ten minutes to nine, Tony and Dale took their positions outside. The crew on the Misty Morning did the same. Seining worked like this: The net was shaped like a long rectangle. One of the short ends was attached to the seiner, the other to the skiff towing behind the seiner. When above a school of fish, the two boats separated and drove in opposite directions in a wide circle. One of the long sides of the net was made of lead and sank when it entered the water. The other long side was threaded with floating beads of cork. When the seiner and skiff reunited, the net underwater took the shape of a circular wall. Along the lead line, strung through metal hoops, was a pink line, called the purse line. As soon as possible after reuniting with the skiff, the seiner reeled in this line, in turn cinching up the bottom of the net, producing a giant sack, which, if all went well, contained fish.
Craig showed up right before the opening. With one minute to go, he said in his preternaturally calm voice, "Don't worry about those boats coming at you, Lars. They're too far away."
Boats? I peered out the window. A quarter mile away, looking all too close to me, two seiners were speeding our way, churning up fat wings of water. I closed one eye, unsure if I could watch. Craig started counting down from ten. A boat edged in front of us.
"Go!" Lars called to the guys on deck.
Tony yanked on the tow hitch, releasing the skiff. The Raven surged forward while the net unfolded with astonishing speed, thumping and clacking over the roar of the engine. I went to the deck, careful not to step on the wrong side of the many lines. If I caught a foot, I'd be long gone.
The skiff quickly shrank as the corkline between us grew, an endless string of white beads. Everywhere I looked, seiners were spitting out cork as if they were production factories.
Craig was uncommonly agitated. "Close her up," he said. "No! Wait. Okay, close her up now!"
The net ran out with a heavy clunk. With maddening slowness, the Raven and the skiff drew close and finally met. Our corkline now formed a misshapen ring. The entire bay was filled with circles of glinting cork, giant pearl necklaces adrift on the sea.
Dale in the skiff handed the end of the net and purse line to Tony, who leaned over the rail for it. Then, Dale drove to the opposite side of the boat. I threw him a line, which he caught and looped around the bit on the skiff. The Raven couldn't run its propeller for fear of shredding the net, so Dale towed us away from obstacles such as rocks and other seiners.
Lars came downstairs, ran the hydraulics, and shouted in monosyllables, "Whoa. Go. Stop. Go," as Tony messed with a tangle of lines.
Finally, Tony cried, "Okay!" One by one, the purse rings rose out of the water and collected on a long rod, each landing with weighty force, like a trap being sprung. When the last ring clanged onboard, everyone went to the gunwale and peered into the net.
Often, the herring stayed deep, below the sunlit stratum of the water. However, nothing came to view.
"Oh well," Lars said with a sigh, walking away. I waited a while, willing the fish to appear. After the enormous stress of playing piranha for the last two hours, it seemed inconceivable and somehow unfair that our net was empty. In other areas in life, if you worked hard, you were often rewarded for it. If I ran six miles a day, say, I could count on being in pretty good shape. But apparently in fishing, no one was guaranteed a fat net.
Craig had departed to help the other combine members, leaving us to sleuth out the herring by ourselves. Back and forth across the bay we drove, passing boats in various stages of making a set. A few cozied up to tenders, large boats that transported the herring to processing plants. You could judge how much fish a boat had caught by how long it stayed by a tender. Dale and Tony took turns peering through binoculars and announcing pumping times.
By the end of the opening, the Raven had made four fishless sets. In a small cove, we dropped anchor. The temperature was warm for mid-April, and we ate lunch outside on the web pile. With the pressure off for the moment, the guys were back to their usual buffoonery.
"Do not lose hope, crew," Lars said, faking a deep, authoritative voice. "The fish appeared in my dreams last night and vowed to fill our net."
Dale snorted and said, "Who hired the cheerleader?"
"All they asked for was a small human sacrifice." Lars looked slyly at Dale. "Our oldest and weakest crew member."
"That would be you, I think."
"Perhaps, but I look younger than you."
"I don't think so."
"Marie, who looks the youngest?" Lars pushed his face close to Dale's and fluttered his eyelids.
Dale shoved Lars's shoulder and said with exaggerated exasperation, "You see what I have to put up with?"
Dale and Lars were old friends. In his late thirties, Dale had curly hair cropped close to his head, an extravagant beard, and piercing blue bedroom eyes. He wore Patagonia-everything and smelled like a men's magazine. He had fished for almost as long as Lars in just as many fisheries and loved to talk about the glory days of salmon during the early eighties when men made eighty thousand dollars in a three-month season and where towns like Kodiak and Dutch Harbor teemed with drugs and alcohol and men shnockered on both.
The radio blurted out static, then someone called for the Raven. Lars hurried to the wheelhouse. Minutes later, he poked his head out the door to report that the Order of Magnitude had caught a hundred tons.
"Not bad," Dale called up. Most years, one hundred tons was like receiving a plump Christmas bonus from the boss — excellent but not extraordinary — while a three-hundred-ton catch approximated finding a soda bottle on the beach with a luminescent pearl inside.
But this year, Japan, the sole buyer of herring caught in the Pacific Northwest, had a surplus from last year's harvest and was currently offering two hundred dollars a ton, way down from last year's eight hundred a ton.
Complicating the problem, all three members of the Raven crew were struggling financially. Their main trade was not herring but salmon fishing, lately a failing industry, due in part to declining wild salmon runs, but primarily to the rapidly growing farmed salmon industry, which competed directly with the wild salmon fishery, sending prices for both farmed and wild breeds plummeting. Lars had once estimated that wild salmon would garner four times its current price if the farmed industry did not exist.
As Tony liked to put it, salmon fishing was only good for a summer job. And that was if you were lucky enough to be a deckhand, like him. If you owned your own boat and permit, as did Lars and Dale, bought during salmon's heyday when gillnetters could cost $500,000 and permits went for as much as $400,000, you were in serious trouble. Neither man could generate enough cash from salmon fishing to make payments on their boats and permits. Worse, both owned lavish homes, purchased again when salmon was doing well, and had families to support. Lars's gillnetter and home were tentatively up for sale. Dale had not yet resorted to such drastic measures, although one of his favorite pastimes involved perusing the classified section of Pacific Fishing magazine and lamenting how low boat and permit prices had sunk — on average, they were one-third the prices of ten years ago.
The Raven crew were counting on herring to make up for those vanished salmon dollars. But with herring at two hundred dollars a ton, their only hope was that they make as many of those pearl-inside-soda-bottle sets as possible.
* * *
Later, Fish and Game announced that sixty percent of Kodiak's quota had been caught and a two-hour opening would begin at four. Lars drained his coffee and turned on the engine. Tony and Dale raced to draw up the anchor, then took stations by the sonar screen, their arms crossed and eyes fixed ahead, the easy mood of lunchtime apparently over. As we combed the same waters we had this morning, the fish proved even more elusive than before. The fleet had made an obvious dent in the population.
At fifteen minutes before four, Craig came on the radio, excited. "There's a big streak on the other side of the bay. Maybe one hundred tons."
We hurtled across the water, meeting up with an aluminum seiner called the Zone jetting in from the north. Tony and Dale rushed to their positions and the two boats began a brutal game of cat and mouse, neither able to take the lead for long without the other jockeying ahead. The men on the Zone kept glancing at us, as if nervous.
At three minutes before four, the skiff on the Zone broke loose, trailing a string of corks. Their net flew overboard, flop after flop.
"He skunked you," Craig said in dismay. Lars wordlessly navigated the Raven above the school of fish and shoved the throttle to its highest pitch, which, under normal circumstances, was considered poor etiquette. Right now, however, it was entirely appropriate.
In the distance, a small boat skimmed motorcycle-speed toward us.
"Good," Lars said. "That's Fish and Game. They're busted."
When the boat drew near, the skipper of the Zone emerged from the wheelhouse and made a big show of looking at his watch.
"Ya right," Lars said and laughed bitterly. The skipper had no excuse. At intervals before an opening, the time was announced on the radio.
"Is there a big fine?" I asked.
This was small consolation for the lost opportunity to catch a Christmas bonus of herring. We left with the Zone backhauling its net, the skipper staring at his feet while a Fish and Game official scribbled on a pad.
By the end of the opening, we had not even wetted our net, although the other combine boats had done well: one hundred and ten tons between the two.
"Good work," Lars radioed to the skipper of the Natalia. But his voice was strained, and after he got off the microphone, he muttered something about "intracombine competition." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Out on the Deep Blue by Leslie Leyland Fields. Copyright © 2001 Leslie Leyland Fields. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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